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Hungarian parliament adopts disputed constitution

Hungarian lawmakers have approved a controversial new constitution drafted by the centre-right Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban (pictured), despite a boycott by opposition forces who claim the text weakens democratic checks and balances.


REUTERS - Hungary's Fidesz party pushed a new constitution through parliament on Monday, bypassing an opposition boycott over complaints the move lacked consensus and will cement Fidesz power beyond the end of its term.

Centre-right Fidesz, which swept to power with a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, has overhauled the constitution and says this will complete a democratisation process started in 1989, when Hungary's communist regime collapsed.

"It's a big debt of those Hungarians who changed the regime and the political players who took part in shaping political life that this has not happened in the past 20 years," Fidesz parliamentary group leader Janos Lazar told parliament ahead of the vote. "We are trying to settle that debt."

Only the ruling Fidesz-KDNP bloc, with 262 votes, approved the constitution, while 44 deputies voted against and one abstained. The Socialists and green liberal LMP stayed away from the vote. The far-right Jobbik party voted against the law.

The fiery debate over Hungary's new constitution

Since taking office, Fidesz has not shied away from adopting bold measures, including a hefty bank tax, taking over private pension assets or pursuing a hotly disputed media law which drew the ire of the European Union.

Thousands of people protested on Friday against the new constitution, which human rights and civil groups said would weaken democratic checks and balances when it comes into force on Jan. 1, 2012.

The law curbs the powers of the top court in budget and tax matters and allows the president to dissolve parliament if a budget is not approved by April.

"As for democratic checks and balances this law is a serious step back. For example the powers of the constitutional court -- which has been the most important counterweight of the government -- are curtailed," said Peter Kreko at think tank Political Capital.

"In economic matters the picture is ambivalent but we can mention positive elements such as the debt ceiling."


'Painful cynicism'

This restriction on the court's powers will be lifted only once the level of public debt sinks below 50 percent of GDP, from around 80 percent now -- which former President Laszlo Solyom said was unacceptable. Solyom headed the Constitutional Court before he became president in 2005.

"It is painful cynicism that this unjustifiable limitation has been enshrined in the constitution, with an illusory end to it, which will never happen in the lives of our generation," Solyom told weekly Heti Valasz in an interview.

The constitution also imposes strict rules to reduce public debt, which investors have welcomed.

However, critics say the governing party should have consulted far more widely when rewriting Hungary's basic law. The Venice Commission, the EU's constitutional law advisory body, has questioned the transparency of the process.

Fidesz has said that with its big parliament majority, it can decide what priorities to articulate because voters have authorised it to enact changes.

Analysts say a key problem with the new constitution is that it would allow Fidesz appointees to control key public institutions -- such as the budget supervisory Fiscal Council -- well beyond its government's term, which ends in 2014.

"I think this (constitution process) will backfire on Fidesz' support; the decline we have seen will not stop," Csaba Toth, political analyst at think-tank Republikon Intezet said.

According to a survey by Median last week, 57 percent of Hungarians believed the new constitution would need to be confirmed by a referendum, and only 29 percent said it was sufficient for a two-thirds parliament majority to approve it.

Latest opinion polls show support for Fidesz has declined considerably but still remains well ahead of the opposition Socialists, Jobbik and LMP.


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